Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Southern Vermont College is closing: Shrinking demand for expensive liberal arts degrees

Inside Higher Ed has done a terrific job reporting on the demise of small liberal arts colleges, and Greg Toppo's recent story on the closure of Southern Vermont College is a fine Inside Higher Ed story on this sad phenomenon.

As Toppo reported, David Rees Evans, Southern Vermont's president, announced that the college is closing at the end of the spring semester. The college has been buffeted by a series of blows: an embezzlement scandal, accreditation problems with its nursing program (which the college resolved), and news that the college's principal accrediting body is planning to put the school on probation.

Closing was the right decision. After all, Southern Vermont only has 332 enrolled students--down from a peak of 500 students just nine years ago. President Evans candidly admitted that the trustees decided to announce its closure now rather than later due in part to fear of being sued if it continued recruiting new students and then shut down precipitously. That's what happened to Mount Ida College, and Southern Vermont wisely decided to wind down its affairs more transparently than Mount Ida apparently did.

President Evans partly blamed negative demographics for its predicament. "New England is in a bad way--especially the rural parts of New England," Evans said. Vermont's high school population, which provides Southern Vermont with about a third of its students, has declined dramatically, and it will decline even more in the years to come.

But demographics doesn't fully explain why so many small liberal arts colleges are closing. There are two more major dynamics in play--and small colleges have no means to counter either of them.

Small, private colleges are too expensive.  First, small, private colleges are simply too expensive for the average family to pay. Most of these small institutions charge somewhere north of $30,000 a year for tuition, fees, and room and board--around $120,000 for a four-year degree. Few families have the resources to pay these costs out of pocket, which means students must take out loans to finance their education.

It is true that small private colleges are discounting tuition drastically--on average by about 50 percent. But $13,000 a year in tuition (about half of Southern Vermont's posted rate) is still a big nut to crack. Increasingly, families are sending their children to attractively priced, regional public universities, which look pretty appealing compared to a rural college with less than 400 students.

A liberal arts education has lost its appeal.  Secondly, some would say tragically, a liberal arts education has lost its appeal in the minds of most Americans. There was a time when most Americans believed that a liberal arts education has intrinsic value. People once believed that a grounding in the liberal arts nurtured civic values, cultivated an appreciation for beauty, and promoted rational thinking. Liberal arts, it was generally believed, helped prepare young people for a fuller and richer life.

I don't think many people believe that anymore. Most young people are keenly aware that they will go into debt to get their college degrees, and they know they must get a degree that will lead to a well paying job or they will be in big financial trouble.  More and more undergraduates are majoring in business, and fewer and fewer are majoring in English, history, and philosophy.

Indeed, colleges themselves are finding it increasingly difficult to articulate exactly what a liberal arts education is these days. For example, there was once a broad consensus about what constitutes the canon of American literature. Scholars might disagree on the details, but most would identify The Great Gatsby as a great American novel--perhaps the great American novel. And most would agree that a basic knowledge of American literature includes at least a passing acquaintance with the works of Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and perhaps Steinbeck.

That's not true anymore. After all, these authors are all dead white men. Where are the works of African American writers, Hispanic writers, women writers, LGBTQ writers?

Of course colleges can add books by marginalized writers to the curriculum, and most are doing so. But students can only read so much, and somewhere on the road to greater relevancy in the liberal arts students start asking--what's the f-cking point?

In fact, I have great sympathy with the critics of traditional liberal arts. I for one would rather be shot than read a novel by William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, or Henry James.

Moreover, literature that is particular to my own life experience means more to me than the so-called great works of American literature. I am a Catholic, and I have read widely in the works of Catholic writers: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Walker Percy, and Alice McDermott. I am a great fan of Myles Connolly's Mr. Blue, a hidden treasure of Catholic literature that is sadly out of print.

But I would not argue to anyone that the Catholic novels that mean so much to me should form part of the liberal arts curriculum. So how can anyone argue that every educated American should read The Great Gatsby?

And so the liberal arts colleges are dying--victims of demographics, soaring costs, and perhaps most of all by our increasingly diverse society that has become fragmented with regard to our understanding of what it means to be an educated American.


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